History as Games

by northernbeholder

Leading on from Wednesday’s discussion of Rome: Total War and my praise for the Creative Assembly’s attempt at recreating the tensions between highly ambitious men which led to brutal civil war, it’s time to talk about ways in which historically-based games can present their information in a way which engages and excites the player, rather than following the path of so many well-intentioned but ill-fated “educational games” and the sorry end they inevitably meet.  The secret is to make the world interesting, rather than a dry and exact replication.

The best example comes from a non-gaming source: HBO’s excellent series, Rome.  If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it more highly, so go out and rent both seasons before we continue. I’ll wait.

Finished? Good, because here be spoilers. Now, Rome does a superb job of following the rise and fall of Caesar and the series of civil wars that tore the Republic apart.  HBO went to great pains to ensure the sets, costumes and (when applicable) military tactics were authentic.  When it came to the narrative, however, they made an important decision: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Generally speaking, the story follows history quite closely, and hits all the major turning points in the right order at the right times.  In the small details, though, they act more freely.  One of my favourite scenes is midway through the first season. Pompey Magnus, Caesar’s rival for control of Rome, had been assassinated by the Egyptian pharaoh when he fled there following his defeat.  When Caesar arrives in pursuit, he is presented with Pompey’s head, a gift the Ptolemaic ruler had thought would be pleasing, but which instead sees Caesar react in horror and disgust, as Pompey had been not only his rival but at one point his closest friend.  Every line of that is true to history, or at least the accounts of history that have survived to reach us, but in the way it was presented HBO made a few crucial changes.

The first, and most major, change concerns the location where Caesar is shown the head.  Historically, it was given to him on the docks just after he had disembarked.  However, HBO decided to move the scene into the throne room of the Pharaoh, thereby allowing them to display the elaborate ritual that surrounded the ruler’s personage and Caesar’s reaction to it – amusement and mild annoyance. This immediately sets the tone for all the exchanges which follow: the Pharaoh displaying the power he is told he has through ritual and worship, the Roman contemptuously ignoring it, safe in his own, far more practical power of superior arms (the arrogant superiority of Roman ‘diplomats’ is all but legendary).  The second change is more minor, concerning the introduction of the head; rather than being shown immediately, it follows a verbal fencing match between Caesar and the Pharaoh’s advisors, which serves to provide important historical context without resorting to clumsy exposition.  Finally, the third change is Caesar’s reaction.  While the surviving records show that he cried out in horror and covered his eyes in grief, HBO’s Caesar is more stoic.  He at first is restrained, though subtle signs show how it is affecting him, and when the Pharaoh’s advisors press the issue he has a brief outburst of rage.  The reasoning behind this, I would assert, is the changing definitions of masculinity.  In Caesar’s time, men were expected to be passionate and emotional; therefore, for him to give a sudden and public display of grief would be the appropriate and ‘manly’ thing to do.  However, in current Western society, for a man to burst into tears is seen as a sign of weakness.  Therefore, to be ‘manly’, Caesar is cold and angry (although HBO do make a concession, in that during the brief funereal scene, Caesar is seen with tears running down his face as he performs the rites for his fallen rival).

The scene is emblematic of the series as a whole.  The important and crucial historical events are captured and portrayed accurately, while the small details are left free to play around with, and manipulated to better communicate context, theme, and characters.  They didn’t sweat the small stuff, and they didn’t break the flow and pacing with a lot of turgid exposition, instead finding ways to communicate through the theme and context of setting, dialogue and characters.  Historically-based gaming can learn from that.

What a good historical game needs – and for the record I’m mostly talking about the strategy and adventure/RPG genres here, as they are my personal favourites –  is to provide a strong framework for the player, but allow them to act more or less freely inside of it.  The framework needs to be where all the details lay.  Soldiers have period-accurate armour, weapons and equipment.  The AI, to the best extent possible, fights in the appropriate fashion for the culture and training of whichever elements are involved.  Structures are architecturally correct for the time.  The available infrastructure matches the level of advancement the cultures have achieved.  Economic structure, governing bodies, law enforcement, civic duty – if any of the systems need to be represented in the game, have them conform to the standards of the time in appearance as much as possible, even if you must make a few changes to their functionality to ensure their meaning and methods translate correctly into the modern gamer’s perception.  Whenever your game is set, whatever the genre is, make sure that the world around the player is vibrant and alive with the past.  The world is your medium.  When it comes to the story, however, do as HBO did – hit the high points, reinforce the appropriate themes, but leave the minor details free and open, so the player feels the crucial sense of agency needed for them to invest themselves.

Here is where we are back at Rome: Total War.  The framework Creative Assembly provided was flawed in many ways, particularly when it game to the graphics depicting soldiers (towards the end of the game, for instance, you can recruit legionnaires wearing the distinctive banded steel armour Hollywood has so popularized, even though that would not be used until centuries after the period when the game takes place).  However, as previously discussed, their three-family divide of Rome was, while laughably inaccurate, an excellent simulation of the tension and competition between ambitious and powerful men for the favour of the senate, the people, and ultimately control of Rome itself.

The secret is not to constrain the player because they’re going to act out contrary to history.  Rome: Total War doesn’t wrest away control of your armies if you expand Rome’s dominion into northern Germany instead of Gaul, although it does simulate the difficulty of holding that area via an increased spawn rate of rebels who then proceed to hide in the heavily forested terrain and ambush any troops you send through.  The framework needs to be robust enough to respond appropriately to player actions without simply disbarring them completely, and historical context needs to be present without being hamfistedly forced.  If you begin arbitrarily restraining them because “Historical figure X never did that”, you’re likely going to begin to lose their interest, but if they find an action is more difficult to perform in one context than another, they may become curious as to the reason why.

Of course, there’s a line that needs to be followed carefully here. Paradox Interactive’s “grand strategy” series Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings allow the player control of a historical power starting from a variety of historically accurate dates. Once play starts, however, all bets are off, as both the AI and player actions tend to send the scenario pinwheeling away into alternate history territory.  While the systems are in place to do a decent job of simulating attempting to lead a Renaissance or feudal nation (particularly the latter, as Crusader Kings has a robust vassal/personality system), there’s little for the player to learn beyond “Man, trying to coordinate a feudal kingdom is hard.”  Actual historical information and context is more or less absent.  The historical detail needs to be there, but it needs to be voluntary. The Total War series, for instance, includes detailed descriptions of units and buildings which not only communicate their function in the game but also grounds them in the historic context from which they came (the particular accuracy of their descriptions is another issue).  The information is available, but it is completely voluntary for the players to access it – another example is the Civilopedia that used to feature in the timeless Civilization strategy games (I personally haven’t been able to find it in the latest iteration, but then I also haven’t played it much, so who knows), or for those of a more shooter/RPG bent, the Codex in the Mass Effect series, which fills throughout the course of the game with background lore on the fictional universe that the player can read or ignore at their leisure.

Where “educational games” fail, and where historically-based games need to succeed, is making information available to players without forcing them to view it.  The in-game context needs to be interesting enough that they want to read more about it.  The player has to reach the point where they think, “Gosh, that’s actually really interesting, and I’d like to learn more about it.”  Then, out of their own free will, they will open your index of historical data and educate themselves.  Give them a world that operates by the rules of the period, and let them get stuck in.  Once they’re engaged with the setting, learning will flow naturally – whether through some manner of index or descriptions included in the game itself, or by their own curious browsing elsewhere.  They might just discover the past is interesting enough on its own merits to keep going even when the game is done.